Expect to be rewarded for your patience, college football fans. The SEC may have a belated kickoff to the 2020 season, but the conference-only slate crafted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic could make for one of the most exciting SEC campaigns in memory.
With a host of new coaches, high-profile new quarterbacks, and the historic makeup of the season itself, 2020 should be more unpredictable than usual. That adds up to plenty of must-see football for fans even beyond the SEC's borders.
20. Mississippi State at LSU, Sept. 26
Getting things rolling right out of the gate, new-look defending champion LSU ushers in the first game of a new era at Mississippi State. Mike Leach's hire in January ranks among the more surprising coaching moves in the SEC in recent years. How his version of the Air Raid offense is set up for life in the SEC could become evident quickly, as LSU features some of the most talented playmakers in the conference with Derek Stingley Jr. and North Dakota State transfer Jabril Cox.
19. Kentucky at Tennessee, Oct. 17
Typically a Rivalry Week game, this East matchup moves to the early half of the truncated season. Perhaps it's a subconscious acknowledgment of how lopsided the series has been, with Tennessee winning all but two matchups since 1985. Mark Stoops has helped Kentucky turn a corner in recent years, however, most notably with the Citrus Bowl-winning 2018 team. The Wildcats offensive line is one of the most talented in the nation and could have this year's Kentucky squad in the mix in the East — but Tennessee, which finished the 2019 season on fire, figures to be in that conversation, as well.
18. Mississippi State at Alabama, Oct. 31
Leach's version of the Air Raid has such a different look from much of what Alabama typically sees that it could create some matchup problems — particularly given some of the common laments about the Crimson Tide secondary in recent years. On the flip side, this could be the ultimate highlight reel-stuffer for standout Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II.
Either way, this is a nice treat on Halloween.
17. Georgia at South Carolina, Nov. 28
Although South Carolina has fallen short of expectations in Will Muschamp's tenure, the Gamecocks' win last October in Athens suggested their potential for more. With the SEC opting out of non-conference games, these East division counterparts eschew traditional meetings with Georgia Tech and Clemson for a conference date, instead. If Steve Spurrier were still in Columbia, he might be dismayed at the change: The Head Ball Coach once quipped he enjoyed playing Georgia in early September because the Bulldogs would inevitably have players serving suspensions.
16. Florida at Texas A&M, Oct. 10
The 2020 season marks just the third meeting between these two programs since A&M joined the SEC eight years ago. The 2012 encounter was the only one played in College Station, and it fell early on the calendar before Johnny Manziel evolved into Johnny Football. This year, both teams come in with well-established quarterbacks, Kyle Trask and Kellen Mond, either of whom could significantly boost his stock with a win here.
15. Florida at Tennessee, Dec. 5
With just one win in the series since 2005, Tennessee's struggles against Florida perhaps best encapsulate the Vols' slide from the SEC apex. Perhaps there's some symbolism to be extracted from that, given a highly anticipated 2020 team ends its regular season facing off against the Gators: Might this be the opportunity for Tennessee to finally break through en route to the SEC Championship Game?
14. LSU at Texas A&M, Nov. 28
If not for the 2018 Texas A&M-LSU game, college football may not have adopted new overtime rules that call for alternating two-point conversion attempts at the fifth overtime. Considering this game replaced Texas as A&M's annual Thanksgiving weekend tradition, it seems only right for it to adopt a rivalry trophy; perhaps a bronze Gatorade tub in recognition of the erroneous dump that occurred during the 2018 marathon.
13. Kentucky at Florida, Nov. 28
The 2018 season was memorable for a number of reasons at Kentucky, not the least of which was the program's first defeat of Florida since 1985. In 2020, the Gators have realistic designs on a conference championship and should be in the hunt to represent that East once this Thanksgiving date, usually reserved for Florida State, comes around.
12. Kentucky at Auburn, Sept. 26
In what could be one of the first truly great games of 2020, a dark-horse SEC East contender in Kentucky gets an opportunity to make considerable noise out of the gate against Auburn. This opening-weekend matchup should be fun if for no other reason than the outstanding Auburn defensive line clashing with the experienced and talented Kentucky front five.
11. Mississippi State at Ole Miss, Nov. 28
The always entertaining Egg Bowl adds some new flavor in 2020, marking the first season with Lane Kiffin and Mike Leach at the helm of Ole Miss and Mississippi State. The two coaches last met in September 2013 as head coaches in the Pac-12, with Leach's Washington State team topping USC in a 10-7 grinder. Do not expect a repeat this time around.
10. Alabama at Ole Miss, Oct. 10
Although not the most high-profile of Alabama's matchups in terms of championship stakes, few will welcome as much intrigue as the first matchup between Nick Saban and Kiffin. Kiffin revitalized his career as an offensive coordinator at Alabama prior to taking the head coaching at FAU, where we won two Conference USA championships.
9. Texas A&M at Alabama, Oct. 3
Since its thrilling win behind Manziel in 2012, Texas A&M is winless against Alabama. Add to it the historic lack of success former Saban assistants have had against the Crimson Tide head coach, including Jimbo Fisher's two head-to-head losses since taking over at Texas A&M, and the Aggies have much precedent to overcome. Drawing this one early might be a benefit for A&M, which needs a big day out of the backfield of Mond and Isaiah Spiller to have a chance.
8. Tennessee at Georgia, Oct. 10
All the offseason buzz that followed Tennessee after its strong finish to 2019 comes to a head early. The Vols have an opportunity to make a statement early against perennial SEC East heavyweight Georgia, but must overcome a troubling trend: The Bulldogs have won the past three meetings by a combined 96 points.
7. LSU at Florida, Oct. 17
This annual, cross-division showdown has delivered some of the most exciting finishes of the 21st century, like the memorable drive to close out the 2007 affair and Les Miles' trick play call in 2015. Last season's 42-28 LSU win was much more competitive than the final score indicates, especially given how the Tigers steamrolled other opponents in the campaign.
Returning to The Swamp in 2020 could set the stage for one of those historic finishes going in the Gators' favor this time around.
6. LSU at Auburn, Oct. 31
No defense challenged the Goliath LSU offense quite as effectively as Auburn's a season ago. While the Bayou Bengals overhaul their look in 2020 without the Joes, the Auburn defense largely reloads. It should make for an interesting dynamic when the two meet this season, this time with Auburn drawing hosting duties.
No matter what, expect a close game: The last four in this series were determined by a combined 13 points.
5. Florida vs. Georgia, Nov. 7 (Jacksonville, Fla.)
With three consecutive SEC East crowns, the Dawgs are undeniably the hunted. However, the extended 2020 offseason came with a wave of buzz for Florida's divisional chances. Trask returning to quarterback Dan Mullen's offense has elevated expectations in Gainesville; how it translates against a stack Georgia defense in Jacksonville may determine who represents the East in the SEC Championship.
4. Auburn at Georgia, Oct. 3
Cross-division rivals Auburn and Georgia have played some of the highest stakes SEC games of the past seven years — games with direct influence on the national championship picture. The second week of the 2020 SEC slate is much too early to talk about title implications, but we might well revisit this one come December.
With two of the nation's most talented defenses in this one, logic dictates a classic, low-scoring slugfest. But then, that suggests logic dictates how this rivalry unfolds.
3. Alabama at LSU, Nov. 14
Like Hannibal leading the Carthaginian army across the Alps, a pack of angry elephants will make the trek into enemy territory for a possible kingdom-defining showdown. LSU's win in Tuscaloosa a season ago served as a milestone moment in the Tigers' march to the national championship, solidifying Joe Burrow as the clear Heisman favorite and showing off the full capabilities of Joe Brady's offense.
While the reigning champions enter the season facing more apparent questions than typical SEC front-runner Alabama, the Crimson Tide aren't without their own uncertainties. We may not yet know the identity of either team at this juncture in the season — just look at the difference in LSU before last year's Alabama game and after it.
2. Auburn at Alabama, Nov. 28
As if the heated Iron Bowl rivalry needed any more fire, the controversial conclusion to last season's Tigers win adds another dousing of kerosene. Auburn has now won two of the last three, and making it 3-of-4 could be the Tigers' key to an SEC championship. But last year's game also showed the potential the Crimson Tide have with Mac Jones at quarterback. He threw four touchdowns against one of the best defenses in the nation. In the 2020 installment, he could use this game to add to a Heisman resume.
1. Georgia at Alabama, Oct. 17
Three-time defending SEC East champion Georgia has been oh-so-close to establishing itself as the conference's current-era standard-bearer. Even when it won the league in 2017, however, the Bulldogs lost to a conference foe in a high-profile spot, suggesting Kirby Smart's program isn't quite there yet. That loss was to Alabama.
Likewise, in the 2018 SEC Championship Game, the Bulldogs dropped another heartbreaker one year removed from the College Football Playoff Championship overtime loss. Another classic could play out and have direct implications on the playoff chase.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.